Animal Kingdom Turns 5!

Happy 5th Anniversary to Disney's Animal Kingdom!

by Kenny Cottrell, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the April 22, 2003, Issue #187 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

"Welcome to a kingdom of animals… real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn."

So goes the dedication speech made by Michael Eisner as he opened Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World five years ago today, on April 22, 1998.

Disney's Animal Kingdom has come a long way since it began as a mere glimmer of an idea in 1989, just after the opening of Walt Disney World's third park, The Disney-MGM Studios. Early in 1990, Disney Imagineers, headed by Joe Rohde, Imagineering Concept Designer, started brainstorming the project until coming up with a park layout that was adopted in April 1992. Work continued behind the scenes, with many visits around the world (emphasizing Africa) until the official announcement was made concerning Walt Disney World's fourth theme park in June 1995. The new park was scheduled to open in spring 1998. The bulldozers started moving earth in August 1995.

That gave them less than three years to construct this park, but then again, the construction time line shrank and shrank as they determined a variety of key factors, such as when they wanted the animals to arrive and how much time the plants needed to acclimate before the animals were added to the environments. After determining a Fall 1997 target for the arrival of the animals, it was decided the plants ought to go through two growing seasons beforehand.

To meet that target, a majority of the 4 million plants needed for the Animal Kingdom had to be planted by Spring 1996. But these deadlines were all met, and when the park opened in April 1998, it debuted the following areas: The Oasis, Safari Village, Camp Minnie-Mickey, DinoLand USA, Africa, Conservation Station, and a partially constructed Asia. A second phase was to open the entirety of the Asia section, followed by a third phase that expanded DinoLand USA, including Dino-Rama.

A Kingdom of Animals:
The Real – Lions… and More

As you enter the Animal Kingdom you find yourself in The Oasis, which provides a lush tropical setting for more than 20 different species of live animals — a giant anteater here, a scarlet ibis over there. There are three distinct pathways (two leading in and out of the park, and one cross-path connecting the two main pathways), with exhibit areas along the paths and the front entrance exhibit area (which includes the dedication plaque).

The land of Africa is home to Walt Disney World's largest attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris. At 100 acres, Kilimanjaro Safaris takes up one-fifth of Disney's Animal Kingdom and is nearly the size of the Magic Kingdom. The Safari takes you through 11 different exhibit areas with the possibility of seeing more than 30 different species — from rhinos to cheetahs to giraffes to lions to gazelles to elephants — roaming freely through the savannah areas.

Pangani Forest Exploration Trail (originally named Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail when the park opened) is divided into eight exhibit areas featuring 22 species of animals, 24 species of birds and at least six species of fish. It is along this trail that you may encounter the gorilla family and the bachelor males, as well as the wide-eyed meerkats and the naked mole rats. Aside from the name change, only minor modifications have been made to the Trails during the last five years, most notably the addition of the Colobus Monkey/Yellow-backed Duiker exhibit area.

Africa is also home to The Wildlife Express, the train ride that ferries Guests to another area, Rafiki's Planet Watch. On the way, you get to see some of the back-of-house areas for the animals that populate the Kilimanjaro Safaris. You might even be lucky enough to see some of the safari animals, both on and off stage. At Rafiki's Planet Watch, along the trail leading to Conservation Station, are a handful of exhibits teaching the main points of conservation. At the station itself there are nearly a dozen different exhibits encouraging one to get involved in different conservation efforts. There are a few species on display full-time and some that are occasionally brought out by the animal keeper staff of Conservation Station.

Rafiki's Planet Watch is also home to the only spot in the park where Guests have direct contact with the animals, the Affection Section. A modified petting zoo, goats, sheep, and nearly a dozen other species wander in a pen so that Guests, including young children, can interact with and feed them. Again there have been only minor changes to Conservation Station and the Affection Section during the last five years, but the trail to Conservation Station from the train station has been enhanced with permanent educational signs and exhibits. (The trail originally only featured educational exhibits during Earth Day celebrations.)

In early 1999, the land of Asia was expanded to include the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Along your journey through six different exhibit areas, you might see seven different species of animals, including the majestic tigers, and nearly 40 different species of brilliantly colored birds.

The main attraction in Asia, a raft ride on rough water, was initially given the exciting name Tiger Rapids Run — until the designers realized that Guests wouldn't see any Tigers while on the ride! After a hasty name change, Kali River Rapids was born. The emphasis of this attraction is now more on conservation and staying dry, than on spotting tigers.

Discovery River, which surrounds the hub of the park now known as Discovery Island (originally Safari Village), was once home to the Discovery River Boats. Despite a few failed attempts to make the boats appealing and useful — at one time they even featured the music of Radio Disney — they were never popular with the guests. They became the first casualty of the park, closing for good in 1999. Today, one boat dock hosts a character greeting area, while the other is a place to relax and enjoy the scenic riverside.

The many trails around the park's impressive icon, The Tree of Life, are home to another 20 species of birds and animals. These creatures can be enjoyed either in or out of the queue for the 3-D tribute to the insect world located at the tree's base, It's Tough to Be a Bug. The tree itself is home to more than 325 different animal images carved into its trunk and branches.

A Kingdom of Animals:
Ancient – Dinosaurs

DinoLand USA is the Animal Kingdom's tribute to the dinosaur giants that once roamed our planet and is home to the park's second "E-ticket" attraction. The bone-shaking thrill ride Dinosaur, originally named Countdown to Extinction, was renamed for the 2000 Disney animated movie. The attraction's storyline has remained the same, though the name has changed and the ride itself has been through numerous minor changes over the past the five years, including the taming of the ride vehicle so that the height requirement could be lowered to 40 inches.

In 2002, Dino-Rama moved into the space formerly occupied by the land's Dinosaur Jubilee and Fossil Preparation Lab. The Dino-Rama expansion added two more attractions to the park — the fun-filled, "wild mouse" type ride, Primeval Whirl and the Dumbo-like TriceraTop Spin — along with plentiful arcade-type games in an area dubbed Fossil Fun Games.

A Kingdom of Animals:
Imagined – Dragons

Both the dedication and the original concepts for this park included the mention of animals that never existed — dragons, unicorns, and other mythical creatures. The so-called "Beastly Kingdom", if built, would be home to these creatures of the imagination. In fact, a hint of this concept could be seen along the once-upon-a-time Discovery River Boat cruise — a fire-breathing dragon huddled along the shores of what could eventually be Beastly Kingdom.

As of now, though, the only "imaginary" animals at the park can be seen in Camp Minnie-Mickey, a home for the favorite Disney characters who would be out of place in DinoLand USA, Africa or even Asia.

We continue to hope that this portion of the park will eventually be developed.

A Kingdom We Enter to
Share in the Wonder

The Animal Kingdom has four different theaters where live shows are performed: two in Camp Minnie-Mickey, one in Asia, and one in DinoLand USA.

In Camp Minnie-Mickey, The Lion King Theater has been home to the immensely popular "The Festival of the Lion King" since the park opened. This show is consistently rated highly in guest surveys and is inching its way to 13,000 performances in front of nearly 10,000,000 guests as it celebrates five years of performances.

The park's largest theater is the Theater in the Wild, currently home to "Tarzan Rocks", a high-energy blend of music, aerial ballet, skateboarding and roller-blading. This theater, however, originally housed a different type of show, "Journey into Jungle Book", which became the second casualty of the park in April 1999. Grandmother Willow's Theater in Camp Minnie-Mickey, showcases "Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends," originally known as "Colors of the Wind, Friends from the Animal Forest." The show, geared to children, features many woodland creatures showing off their talents with Pocahontas and Grandmother Willow and has been essentially the same since its beginning.

Asia's "Flights of Wonder", on the other hand, has been retooled a few times since it opened, despite keeping its original name. Found on the Caravan Stage, the show currently features a number of trained birds performing natural behaviors, such as Sluggo, the seriama who smashes a rubber lizard to demonstrate how he prepares his food.

A Kingdom of Balance,
Harmony and Survival

Disney's Animal Kingdom has been on something of a roller coaster ride through its five years, making some missteps, but for the most part growing and expanding to fulfill its original goal of serving as a place to learn and share in the beauty and wonder of nature. Budget constraints, the tough times that the tourist industry is currently facing… these things are factors that can affect Animal Kingdom as it goes forward to face its next five years.

And yet there are so many things to enjoy at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and so many talented Cast Members dedicated to bringing a memorable experience to all who visit. With all the ups and downs, and all the changes, the next five years of the Animal Kingdom promise to be anything but boring.

Happy Birthday, Animal Kingdom! And Happy Earth Day!


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.